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SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 11

We’ve finished two-thirds of the Hatsu Basho, and find ourselves in a very familiar position. Yokozuna Hakuho is the leader with a perfect 10–0 record. Less usual is the fact that even his closest competitors already have two losses, giving the yokozuna a cushion that he shows no sign of needing. Tied for second-place right now with 8–2 records are sekiwake Tamawashi and M15 Chiyonokuni. Hanging on in third place with 7–3 records are sekiwake Takakeisho, M8 Kaisei, M9 Endo, and M13 Yago.

Tuesday was a tough day as two rikishi went down hard with knee injuries that required them to be wheeled out of the stadium. One of them was Chiyonokuni, whose knee appeared to buckle in his loss to M11 Ikioi. He wasn’t able to stand and bow in the post-match ritual and seemed to be almost unaware of where he was. The other was M13 Kotoyuki, who went flying off the dohyo in his match against M10 Takarafuji and seemed at first to be unconscious (there were worries that he’d hit his head on the stadium floor and suffered a concussion). But eventually he scrabbled to his feet and made it clear that the problem was actually with his knee. As of this writing, neither rikishi has announced that they will be kyujo [absent due to injury], but I find it hard to imagine that either one will be ready for competition today.

<<UPDATE: It is confirmed, both Kotoyuki and Chiyonokuni are kyujo as of today. Chiyonokun has left knee ligament damage that requires two weeks of rest. Luckily, he secured his kachi-koshi and so will stay in the Makuuchi Division and even get a small promotion in March (which he sure earned with his performance here). Meanwhile, Kotoyuki has been diagnosed with a femur contusion and lateral ligament damage on his right leg. No word on how long he’ll be sidelined, but with only a 4–6 record so far, he may well be demoted down to Juryo in March, adding insult to his injuries.>>

Hakuho continued his winning ways, making short work of M4 Okinoumi yesterday. Hakuho really does seem to be picking up steam as the basho progresses. His win yesterday was classic for him—a strong, fast tachi-ai [initial charge] which let him grab his opponent’s belt and march him quickly out of the ring. With a two win lead over his nearest competition and both remaining ozeki looking wobbly at best, it’s hard to imagine Hakuho letting his 43rd yusho [tournament championship] slip away unless one of his recurring injuries crops up again.

Today Hakuho will face komusubi Mitakeumi, who is returning after four days kyujo. When last we saw Mitakeumi, he had twisted his knee, but according to doctors suffered no structural damage, just muscle and ligament twists. I’m not sure how it behooves him to come back to the tournament now. Certainly, with a 5–2–3 record, he has a chance to get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and save his sanyaku rank (he’s been either komusubi or sekiwake for twelve basho in a row now). But given how the two sekiwake are performing, there doesn’t seem to be much chance for him to get a promotion back to his former rank, and there seems to be every chance that he could hurt himself even further and risk a more disabling condition. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that he is, indeed, ready to step back into the fray.

Both ozeki won on Tuesday, something we haven’t seen much during this tournament. Takayasu saved some face for himself and the ozeki rank as a whole by beating sekiwake Takakeisho using the young rikishi’s own preferred technique. The two blasted each other several time with violent thrusts, and then Takayasu nimbly stepped out of his opponent’s path and switched to a scooping slapdown blow. Goeido, on the other hand, looked like his old self in twisting down former ozeki M4 Kotoshogiku. If the two ozeki keep up these types of performances, they still can offer some resistance to Hakuho in the final weekend and hopefully keep some manner of uncertainty about the yusho race.

Sekiwake Tamawashi has very quietly been having a very good tournament. While pundits (including me) have spent a good deal of time talking about his fellow sekiwake Takakeisho, Tamawashi now has the better record of the pair and is currently tied for second place overall. He was ranked at sumo’s third-highest rank before, indeed, he had a very strong run as a sekiwake back in 2017 and there was talk of him looking like a strong candidate for ozeki. Although Tamawashi stumbled in 2018, his rank never dropped below M2. It could be that he’s overcome whatever troubles he was having and is ready to start making another run at a promotion to sumo’s second-highest level. He’s beaten all three ozeki already this basho and has only Hakuho left to face (probably on Friday).

Today’s most intriguing matches include:

M14 Yutakayama (6–4) vs. M6 Onosho (6–4)—Onosho started the basho strong, but has lost three matches in a row. He needs to get back on the ball to secure his kachi-koshi. (4:50)
M4 Kotoshogiku (4–6) vs. sekikwake Tamawashi (8–2)—With Chiyonokuni’s injury, Tamawashi really has sole possession of second place. Even though he’s two wins behind the leader, he has to keep winning if he wants to stay ahead of the third-place pack. (8:40)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (7–3) vs. M2 Hokutofuji (6–4)—Both of these rikishi have looked very strong, but both have also suffered a few self-inflicted losses. They’re both big pusher/thrusters so this will be about power sumo, and listen for the knock of their headbutt at the tachi-ai! (9:45)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (5–2–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (10–0)—At the start of the basho, this was a much anticipated match. With Mitakeumi just returning from four kyujo days, no one knows what shape he’ll really be in. (12:35)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 10

We’ve reached Day 10 of the Hatsu Basho and yokozuna Hakuho is still undefeated, and thus still alone atop the leaderboard. In fact, he’s gained an even greater advantage because two of his immediate competitors lost yesterday leaving just M15 Chiyonokuni in second place with an 8–1 record.

Hakuho continues to look a little stronger each day. On Monday he completely manhandled M4 Kotoshogiku, but that really came as no surprise. For five years Kotoshogiku was an ozeki and fought Hakuho every tournament and the yokozuna completely owned him the entire time. Yesterday’s was their sixty-second meeting, and Hakuho now leads their rivalry 56–6. Given that the two ozeki are performing as poorly as they are, the only two real challenges Hakuho has left on his schedule are the sekiwake.

Speaking of the sekiwake, Takakeisho seems to have gotten right back into his pushing/thrusting groove, quickly beating N2 Nishikigi and improving his record to 7–2. Meanwhile, Tamawashi also notched his seventh win, in his case by crushing ozeki Takayasu to the clay. They’re both two losses behind Hakuho, but if he stumbles they are well poised to jump back into the yusho [tournament championship] race.

It’s beginning to very much look like Takayasu is actually injured. At first he seemed to be mentally off his game, but the way his opponents have been manhandling him point more to a something physical (and probably in his right leg). His loss yesterday takes him to 4–5, and looking like he doesn’t have the tools to pull out of this dive. Still, given his hardheadedness, he’s unlikely to withdraw from the tournament until he actually registers a make-koshi [majority of losses]. I can only hope that happens quickly so that he can begin resting and receiving medical treatment.

The other ozeki, Goeido, lost his sixth bout yesterday, crumbling under pressure from M4 Okinoumi. Now, I like Okinoumi, but he’s got a well-deserved reputation for not being a “clutch” rikishi. Indeed, he’s better known for showing his worst face when squaring off against high-ranking opponents. But he looked calm and steady yesterday, while Goeido was shaky and indecisive. With a record now of 3–6, Goeido can only spare two more losses before he is make-koshi, and that’s seeming almost inescapable at this point.

M8 Kaisei seems to have reverted to his usual unpredictable ways, putting in champion-level performances one day, and then seeming as though his mind is miles away the next. He lost his third match yesterday and now is pretty much out of all reasonable chances for competing for the yusho. At 3–6, he still will probably get his kachi-koshi without any real trouble and be promoted for the Osaka Basho in March. But if he can’t find a way to reliably bring his A-game EVERY day, he’ll probably end up falling back down the banzuke [ranking sheet] after that.

M15 Chiyonokuni got his kachi-koshi yesterday and seems to be locked into a solid rhythm. Being so low on the banzuke he probably will continue to notch relatively easy wins for the next few days before the Kyokai [Sumo Association] rewards his good performance with matches against better ranked opponents. Still, he’s got a lot of skill and may be able to remain near the top of the leaderboard late into Week 2—and he might even be able to parlay his advantage into a surprise yusho, or at least a final day playoff for the championship.

Let’s look at some of today’s most interesting matches.

M15 Chiyonokuni (8–1) vs. M11 Ikioi (5–4)—The lone second-place rikishi, Chiyonokuni, faces the much bruised and battered but never bowed Ikioi. (3:10)
M7 Ryuden (3–6) vs. M9 Endo (6–3)—Two very popular rikishi trying to get their Week 2 efforts off to a strong start. (6:10)
M8 Asanoyama (3–6) vs. M6 Onosho (6–3)—After starting the basho with six straight wins, Onosho has lost his last three matches. In every case because he got too aggressive and overextended his reach, throwing him off balance. (8:00)
M5 Aoiyama (5–4) vs. M8 Kaisei (7–2)—Another two rikishi who started the basho among the leaders but struggled over the middle weekend. Kaisei could still be on the edge of the yusho hunt if he does well in Week 2. (9:30)
Ozeki Takayasu (4–5) vs. sekiwake Takakeisho (7–2)—Takayasu had better start winning, and it would do him some extra good to put down the “upstart” Takakeisho. Of course, I’m not sure his legs are up to the task. (13:55)
M4 Okinoumi (6–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (9–0)—Okinoumi is doing surprisingly well this basho, and is fresh off a win over an ozeki. Hakuho has to keep his focus and keep winning—and he’s got a lot of experience doing just that. In their twenty previous meetings, Okinoumi has won only once. (15:00)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 9

And so we move into Week 2 of the Hatsu Basho. Yokozuna Hakuho remains alone atop the leaderboard, having secured his eighth win yesterday. Three rikishi are one win off the pace with 7–1 records—M8 Kaisei, M13 Yago, and M15 Chiyonokuni.

It was touching to see the Emperor and Empress yesterday, particularly knowing that it was probably the final time the will visit the royal box. The crowd was clearly emotional about it, too, and even as a relatively detached gaijin, I found myself getting a little misty as the royals waved on their way out of the stadium and the audience sent them off to “banzai” cheers.

Hakuho continues to look more and more solid as the days pass. He rolled M5 Aoiyama pretty easily for his eighth win, and handing the big Bulgarian his third loss. With all that he has accomplished at this point in his career, I often wonder what there is left for him to aim for. Of course, Hakuho has said that he wants to remain active through the 2020 Olympics, so that he can do his yokozuna dohyo-iri [ring entering ceremony] in front of the entire world, but I couldn’t imagine what else he was using to challenge himself. During commentary over the weekend, though, one of the reporters talked about some goals that Hakuho has recently mentioned in the Japanese press.

Hakuho turned 33 years old last year, and that plays into a new set of goals, linked to how well legendary yokozuna Chiyonofuji did late in his storied career. Hakuho wants to beat Chiyonofuji’s record for most yusho [tournament championships] won after his 33rd birthday—that number being 8. Having only managed to win 1 basho last year, that means that Hakuho still has to lift the Emperor’s Cup eight more times to set a new mark. Since he’s already won 42 yusho (an all-time record), that means that if he meets that goal he will also reach a career total of 50, a mark that many people have called “impossible.” He also wants to stay active as a yokozuna longer than Chiyonofuji, who retired at the age of 35 years and 11 months—so Hakuho’s goal is to still be fighting when he’s 36 years old. So I guess that, health allowing, we can count on him being in the mix for another three years or more.

Yesterday’s marquee match was the one between sekiwake Takakeisho and M6 Onosho, two of the brighter stars from the next-generation of rikishi that are climbing the banzuke. Takakeisho won, leaving both rikishi with 6–2 records and hoping for some slippage on the leaderboard to let them back into the yusho race proper.

Meanwhile, both remaining ozeki lost yesterday—AGAIN. Takayasu slipped to 4–4 as he looked completely unfocused against M3 Shohozan. His opponent pulled a henka [sidestep at the initial charge] and Takayasu just barreled forward with his head down, basically tripping over his own feet. On the other hand, Goeido got pushed around and tossed to the clay by sekiwake Tamawashi, leaving him with 3–5 record. Both ozeki are going to have to work hard in Week 2 if they want to avoid make-koshi [majority of losses] and being kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in the March tournament (a fate that is already certain for kyujo [absent due to injury] ozeki Tochinoshin).

Today’s most interesting matches include:

M15 Chiyonokuni (7–1) vs. M12 Meisei (6–2)—Chiyonokuni is currently tied for second place and is going for his kach-koshi today. Meisei, on the other hand, is on a six match winning streak. (2:15)
M13 Yago (7–1) vs. M11 Ikioi (4–4)—Yago is another second-place rikishi going for kachi-koshi. He faces the iron rikishi Ikioi. (3:40)
M7 Ryuden (2–6) vs. M8 Kaisei (7–1)—Kaisei is also going for his kachi-koshi and to remain in the midst of the yusho race. Ryuden is a strong young rikishi who has been struggling this basho. (5:35)
Ozeki Takayasu (4–4) vs. sekiwake Tamawashi (6–2)—Takayasu must win four of his remaining seven matches to avoid make-koshi. Meanwhile, Tamawashi is having a good first tournament back at sumo’s third-highest rank (he spent most of 2017 as a sekiwake). (10:50)
M4 Okinoumi (5–3) vs. Ozeki Goeido (3–5)—Goeido must win five of his remaining seven matches to avoid make-koshi. He’s fighting against often inconsistent Okinoumi who has had a pretty good tournament so far. (11:35)
M4 Kotoshogiku (4–4) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (8–0)—These two have fought sixty-one times in the past, and Hakuho has won fifty-five of those matches. There are 44 kensho [sponsorship] envelopes on the line, though, so that’s a pretty good motivation for the former-ozeki to give it his best shot one more time. (12:30)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho Nakabi [Middle Day]—Day 8

Here we are, halfway through the Hatsu Basho, and sitting alone atop the leaderboard once again is yokozuna Hakuho with a perfect 7–0 record. Immediately behind him with just one loss are M6 Onosho, M8 Kaisei, M13 Yago, and M15 Chiyonokuni.

Today is a big day at the Kokugikan [National Sports Arena] as the Emperor and Empress will be attending the matches. They are known to be fans of sumo and show up in person a few times per year during the Tokyo-based tournaments, though that has been less often in recent years due to their age. Indeed, today will likely be the final time the Heisei Emperor will attend sumo—he has announced his intention to abdicate the throne in April and pass the imperial title on to his son. The Emperor and Empress are much beloved by the Japanese people in general, and particularly among sumo fans, so there will be even more attention than usual paid to their presence this time as it is the sumo world’s chance to bid them farewell.

Meanwhile, on the dohyo, Hakuho seems to be as good as his word to “settle down” as the tournament moves into its second half. After struggling in the middle of Week 1, he was all business in his victory over M3 Shohozan, and is suddenly looking like the prohibitive favorite to take the first yusho [tournament championship] of 2019. Of course, a lot can happen in Week 2.

The two remaining ozeki—Takayasu and Goeido—also seem to be getting their rhythms, after rocky beginnings. If they continue to perform up to their usual standards, they could still give Hakuho some trouble in the tournament’s final days.

Onosho suffered his first defeat yesterday at the hands of Kaisei. The big Brazilian rebounded from his poor showing on Friday and slid right back into his A-level performance, easily winning yesterday’s bout. It would be great if he could continue on that path, because when he’s firing on all cylinders, Kaisei looks like an ozeki. His problem has always been that he can’t be counted on to give that kind of effort every day of a tournament. Onosho didn’t look bad in their match. He’s a young rikishi—the second-youngest in the division behind Takakeisho—and has to go through this kind of situation a few times before he’ll have the seasoning to pull through in the clutch.

Interestingly, those two young rikish—Takakeisho and Onosho—have a very long history together. They fought often when they were in college, and joined professional sumo at about the same time, both making their way up the ranks quickly and continuing to square off regularly. They will do so again today in what most people think is the marquee match of nakabi.

M5 Aoiyama lost his second match of the tournament yesterday, knocking him off the leaderboard. He got a little sloppy and let M6 Chiyotairyu use his own favorite hatakikomi [slap down] maneuver against him. If he wants to stay in the yusho race, he’s going to have to come back in a big way because his match today is against Hakuho.

There has been a lot of rough sumo this tournament, with several rikishi already having gone kyujo [absent due to injury] and several more sporting bandages. However the arguably the most beat up of all is M11 Ikioi, who had a gash opened on his forehead on Day 1 (requiring several stitches) and falling hard on his knee on Day 2 (leaving him hobbling out of the arena afterward). Yesterday, Ikioi got a thumb jabbed in his left eye, momentarily leaving him unable to see and sending him to the hospital afterward. Amazingly, though, he will be back in action again today. Ikioi is the sport’s current iron-man, having NEVER missed a day of competition since he joined professional sumo in March of 2005.

Today’s most interesting matches include:

M13 Yago (6–1) vs. M16 Daiamami (2–5)—Have a look at Yago, who remains one win off the pace in the yusho race. (1:25)
M12 Kagayaki (1–6) vs. M15 Chiyonokuni (6–1)—Likewise, have a look at Chiyonokuni, who is also in the group currently tied for second place. (1:55)
M15 Kotoeko (3–4) vs. M11 Ikioi (4–3)—Battered, bloodied, and half-blind, Ikioi is STILL fighting on! (3:30)
M4 Kotoshogiku (4–3) vs. M8 Kaisei (6–1)—Another of our second-place rikishi, Kaisei facing Kotoshogiku, who he’s only ever beaten once in all their past meetings. (5:55)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (5–2) vs. M6 Onosho (6–1)—This is the big match of the day. The two youngest rikishi in the division, who are also among the brightest next-gen stars, and both still in the hunt for the yusho. (9:45)
M5 Aoiyama (5–2) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (7–0)—And, of course, our leader, Hakuho, going for kachi-koshi on Day 8. Aoiyama has only ever beaten the yokozuna once in nineteen tries. (12:55)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 7

We’ve reached the middle weekend of the Hatsu Basho and just like that the leaderboard has just a pair of names sitting alone at the top. Yokozuna Hakuho and M6 Onosho are the only remaining undefeated rikishi. Trailing them with 5–1 records are komusubi Mitakeumi, M5 Aoiyama, M8 Kaisei, M13 Yago, and M15 Chiyonokuni. NOW things start to get interesting.

Before the tournament began, Hakuho told the press that he “wouldn’t settle down until the second half of the basho,” and based on his performance yesterday that may just be the case. And if it is, he’s well poised to make a run at his 42nd yusho [tournament championship] (perhaps even his fifteenth zensho-yusho [perfect record championship]). After struggling to win on the three previous days, Hakuho came out fast and strong on Friday to notch a quick victory over M3 Shodai.

The two remaining ozeki also won yesterday, but not as convincingly. Takayasu upped his record to 3–3 by beating M2 Nishikigi in closely fought bout. Takayasu showed patience and strength, and that bodes well for his perhaps getting back on track in Week 2. Meanwhile, Goeido was very nearly pushed out of the ring by M3 Shohozan before he rallied and turned the tables for his second win of the tournament. He still didn’t look good, but he did manage to win, which has more or less been his trademark in recent months.

The reigning champion, sekiwake Takakeisho, however, lost for the second time this basho. His opponent was Mi Tochiozan who found a way past Takakeisho’s big thrusting arms and was able to get a good grip on his belt. The secret to beating the sekiwake is clearly out—the trick has been finding a way to execute on it. But if Tochiozan can do it, there’s no doubt that many mid-level rikishi can, too. I fear that Takakeisho may be in for a difficult time in the second half of 2019.

Komusubi Mitakeumi lost his first match of the basho yesterday, but more importantly, he suffered some kind of disabling damage to his left knee. It was so bad that he was unable to climb back onto the dohyo after the bout for his ceremonial bow and had to be wheeled out of the stadium straight to the hospital. No surprise, he had been announced as kyujo [absent due to injury] as of today. There was no indication of how the injury happened—no sever twist or clumsy fall—it was just like something popped in his knee and suddenly he was in severe pain. Let’s hope that it isn’t anything serious, or that if it is he’s wise enough to get any needed surgery straight away rather than letting the problem linger. Mitakeumi is, in my estimation, the best of the next-gen rikishi (at least so far) and the Makuuchi Division will be a less interesting place with him on the sideline.

<<UPDATE: According to Mitakeumi’s oyakata [stable master], there was no structural damage, just muscle and ligament strains, and it is possible that Mitakeumi will return to competition after a few days. Personally, I hope not. Rest up and get better, I say. But Mitakeumi may want to get three more wins and lock down a kachi-koshi [majority of wins] and possible promotion back to sekiwake.>>

Two other rikishi who had been doing quite well also notched losses yesterday. M8 Kaisei and M1 Ichinojo both had been showing us their A-level sumo through the first five days, but both of them seemed to bring their B-level game on Friday. Here’s hoping the toggle back to show us their better sides again over the weekend.

Finally, a word about M5 Aoiyama, whose only loss so far was because of an unfortunate call over an incidental hair-pull. The big Bulgarian continues to fight well and cleverly, and could turn out to be the big surprise challenger as we move into Week 2.

Today’s best bouts include:

M12 Kagayaki (1–5) vs. M9 Endo (3–3)—A very spirited match between two rikishi whose skills are better than their records so far would indicate. (5:10)
M8 Kaisesi (5–1) vs. M6 Onosho (6–0)—Two rikishi who are both tearing up the competition this basho, and both are currently on the leaderboard. (6:25)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (4–2) vs. M1 Ichinojo (4–2)—Both of these rikishi seemed in the first few days to be unbeatable, and both have lost twice in the last few days. Which one will come out on top and remain in the hunt for the yusho? (10:30)
M3 Shohozan (2–4) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (6–0)—If Hakuho really is coming on strong it should show today—he’s never lost to Shohozan in the past. (14:00)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 6

It’s Day 6 of the Hatsu Basho and as we head into the middle weekend we finally have something of a leaderboard forming. Four rikishi remain undefeated—yokozuna Hakuho, komusubi Mitakeumi, M6 Onosho, and M8 Kaisei. A half-dozen rikishi are immediately trailing them with 4–1 records—sekiwake Takakeisho, M1 Ichinojo, M2 Nishikigi, M5 Aoiyama, M13 Yago, M15 Chiyonokuni.

Hakuho continues to pull wins out of super close matches, yesterday needing a second bout with Nishikigi after their first one was deemed too close to call. Certainly, finding a way to win is the trademark of a champion, but it is a marked change for Hakuho who has been so dominant over EVERYONE for the past decade. It’s clear that we’re in the final phase of his historic career, but the question is open as to whether he can make his final big goal of being active for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. For now, you still have to consider him most likely to win the yusho [tournament championship] simply because no one has proven that they can beat him reliably, and he keeps winning, no matter how shakily.

Yokozuna Kakuryu, on the other hand, could not find a way to beat Ichinojo (the Hakuho had the day before) and is now 2–3 for the tournament. Kakuryu had quite a strong year in 2018, but so far this year he’s looking like the wobbly, on the verge of retirement rikishi he’d seemed to be back in 2016. For a yokozuna, he’s always been awfully streaky.

<<UPDATE: Kakuryu has withdrawn from the basho due to an ankle injury. That leaves us with only one yokozuna.>>

Things aren’t looking any better among the ozeki. Tochinoshin has thankfully gone kyujo [absent due to injury], but Takayasu continues to lack the “finishing drive” that got him promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank. He keeps putting up strong fights, then crumbling just when a strong ozeki would throw his opponent to the clay. He’s got a 2–3 record, and seems to always be walking off the dohyo with a confused “how did THAT happen?” look on his face. Meanwhile, Goeido finally notched his first win of the tournament yesterday. If he’s getting back into a groove, it’s still possible he could pull out a kachi-koshi [majority of wins], but if not we might see something truly astounding in Osaka—a tournament where ALL of the ozeki are kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion].

Takakeisho bounced back from his Day 4 loss to Mitakeumi and powered through the other komusubi Myogiryu yesterday. His relentless thrusting attacks are still working in his favor most days, but as I noted yesterday, that will change soon enough if he doesn’t add some other maneuvers to his toolbox. Speaking of Mitakeumi, the komusubi continued his perfect performance by beating the other sekiwake Tamawashi without working up much of a sweat. He’s so far beaten two yokozuna, an ozeki, and both sekiwake, with only Hakuho and Takayasu yet to be faced, then he’ll be fighting only rikishi ranked below him. This could be an ideal opportunity for him to grab his second yusho.

The dark horse challengers in the yusho race are Onosho and Kaisei, both of whom have relatively easier schedules because of their low ranking, and both of whom are looking in prime form so far. Kaisei in particular is performing like an ozeki, and more than one commentator has compared his current style of sumo to that shown by former dai-yokozuna Akebono back in the 1990s. He seems so calm and centered, and he’s got the size, power, and reach to launch many opponents two or three rows into the crowd if he wants to. (Unlike Akebono, though, that’s not Kaisei’s style.)

Let’s have a look at some of today’s most interesting match-ups.

Komusubi Myogiryu (1–4) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (5–0)—A tale of two komusubi going in two different directions. But there’s always pride on the line when equal rikishi meet. (9:00)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (4–1) vs. M1 Tochiozan (1–4)—An interesting example of how important angle of attack is in sumo. (10:20)
M3 Shohozan (2–3) vs. ozeki Goeido (1–4)—Goeido got his first win yesterday. He needs to keep that focus and keep on winning or he’s in real trouble. (12:20)
Ozeki Takayasu (2–3) vs. M2 Nishikigi (4–1)—Takayasu is having a tough basho and needs to start winning. Nishikigi is having a great basho and wants to add another ozeki to his list of upset victories. (13:35)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 5

It’s Day 5 of the Hatsu Basho, and while the whole sumo world is still buzzing about the announcement of Kisenosato’s retirement, the tournament rolls on. The two remaining yokozuna won their matches yesterday, but the ozeki continue to struggle.

For the second day in a row, yokozuna Hakuho had a tough time of it. On Day 3 it was against the massive M1 Ichinojo, and yesterday he faced the as yet undefeated M2 Hokutofuji. Indeed, Hokutofuji entered the match coming off wins over all three of the ozeki and looking very much like a world-beater. Hakuho, however, has been facing down and overcoming all challengers for years and always seems to have a trick up his metaphorical sleeve. (Given that rikishi only wear mawashi, that metaphor does NOT bear close scrutiny.) In this case, Hokutofuji had the yokozuna teetering on the tawara [straw bale marking the ring’s edge] when Hakuho twirled on one foot and threw his opponent out of the ring. It seemed as though they might have gone out simultaneously, but after a mono-ii [referee’s conference] the shimpan ruled that Hakuho had made a winning maneuver. (Sometimes being a yokozuna gets you a favorable call like that.)

The question now is whether the past two days have been cases of Hakuho overcoming very strong competition or proof that the yokozuna’s strength is fading, making it harder for him to overcome the competition. We’ll have to judge based on how things go over the rest of the basho.

Yokozuna Kakuryu also had to overcome a strong challenge from his opponent, komusubi Myogiryu. Their match was a back and forth affair with the challenger eventually simply failing to respond to one of the yokozuna’s mighty thrusts, leaving him open for follow-up attacks. In truth, though Hakuho is 4–0 and Kakuryu is 3–1, neither yokozuna is looking particularly dominant so far this tournament.

Two rikishi who ARE dominating their competition ended up having to go head-to-head yesterday. Both sekiwake Takakeisho and komusubi Mitakeumi came into their bout with perfect 3–0 records and looking like future ozeki (which they both probably are). Mitakeumi had the edge 5–3 in their past meetings, but in Kyushu last November, Takakeisho won their match and took the yusho [tournament championship]. Yesterday, though, Mitakeumi was able to get inside the sekiwake’s thrusts and grab his belt, an Takakeisho had no response to that. Indeed, it brings up his weakness that I’ve been talking about for a while.

Takakeisho is pretty much ONLY a pusher/thruster and really has zero skill on the mawashi. This is fine for him when fighting low- and mid-level rikishi, but the upper-level competitors are quickly learning his weakness and the holes in his defenses, and will soon begin to exploit them regularly. If Takakeisho doesn’t adapt and up his skill on the mawashi, he’ll soon find himself bounced out of the sanyaku ranks and down to the middle of the banzuke [ranking sheet]. This is very similar to how Kotoyuki faired when he first came up the ranks. He rose to the top quickly, but relied solely on yotsu-sumo [pushing/thrusting style] and quickly fell back down to the mid-level. Indeed, in the past year he’s spent a number of tournaments down in Juryo and is currently ranked at M13 with a 2–2 record. Takakeisho would do well to learn from this lesson and put a great deal of effort into broadening his skill set.

One of the things that impressed me most about Mitakeumi when he first came up through the ranks was that you could SEE him learning new techniques even in the middle of a basho. An opponent would use a particular technique to beat him one day, and then Mitakeumi would use the same technique on his next few opponents, adding it to his repertoire. The better the quality of his competition, the more tricks he learned and put into use. That’s why he’s been so successful and been able to not just reach sanyaku but stay there. Mitakeumi has been either a komusubi or sekiwake since March 2017—twelve straight tournaments.

Ozeki Takayasu notched his second win on Wednesday against a tricky opponent—M1 Tochiozan—who beat Kisenosato on Day 3, precipitating the yokozuna’s retirement. Tochiozan also came into the match with a 20–7 lead in the pair’s head-to-head matches. Perhaps Takayasu was seeking retribution for Kisenosato (who was his stablemate), or just for himself, but whatever the reason, he seemed to be a man on a mission. The ozeki dominated the match yesterday, coming quickly out of the tachi-ai [initial charge] and utterly manhandling Tochiozan. Something has been missing for Takayasu in recent tournaments. Although he performs well, he just couldn’t pull it all together when he needed to in order to win his second yusho. Maybe Kisenosato’s retirement will turn out to light the fire he needs to take his sumo to that next level.

Ozeki Goeido, on the other hand, continues to be in his own personal doldrums. He dropped to 0–4 yesterday when he lost to M1 Ichinojo. The big Mongolian came out undeterred by his Day 3 loss to Hakuho and continued to show the A-level effort that he’s displayed all basho. Goeido had the skills to tie him up the way the yokozuna had the day before, but not the final force of will to turn the tables and throw him to the clay. In the end, Ichinojo was able to maneuver Goeido to the ring’s edge and out for his third win of the tournament. Interestingly, with the way the other ozeki are performing so far this basho, Goeido still isn’t in dire threat of make-koshi [majority of losses], but if he doesn’t start winning immediately, he may reach that position long before they start being paired up in the middle of Week 2.

Speaking of ozeki who seem destined for a losing record, Tochinoshin also dropped to 0–4 losing to sekiwake Tamawashi yesterday. It’s clear that the Georgian’s right leg can’t take any pressure, and I wish he would just accept that he’s going to be kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in March and go kyujo [absent due to injury] so that he can let his thigh start to heal.

<<UPDATE: Tochinoshin did indeed withdraw from the tournament today. It’s the right decision, I think. Hopefully he’ll come back strong and healthy in Osaka.>>

On the positive side, M8 Kaisei—who is known for being inconsistent and having an unpredictable “A” and “B” style of sumo—has looked like a champion all tournament so far. He’s been calm and his moves have been smooth, like he’s seeing his opponents in slow motion. The big Brazilian has all the skills to be a top-level rikishi, if only he can reliably fight this way every day . . . and avoid injuries (which plagued him last year). If he keeps this up, he could well be in the hunt for the yusho deep into Week 2.

M10 Aoiyama is also looking strong, but had a bit of bad luck on Day 4. He out-fought his opponent M6 Onosho, another of the “next-gen” rikishi, and seemed to win the bout. But in the act of rolling him off the dohyo, Aoiyama’s finger got tangled in Onosho’s chonmage [top knot] and tugged it during the maneuver. One of the few forbidden techniques is hair-pulling. In the replay, it’s pretty clear that the hair was pulled. And even though it seems to have been incidental rather than intentional, it was enough for the shimpan [ringside judges] to disqualify Aoiyama handing him his first loss of the tournament and giving Onosho his fourth straight win.

Enough of my pontificating, though. Let’s look at some of today’s most interesting bouts:

M13 Yago (3–1) vs. M15 Chiyonokuni (4–0)—Two strong young rikishi who are meeting in the upper division for the first time (though they have fought one another previously in Juryo Division). This is Yago’s first tournament in the Makuuchi Division. (2:25)
M11 Sadanoumi (2–2) vs. M9 Endo (2–2)—Two very determined rikishi showing their fighting spirit. (4:25)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (4–0) vs. sekiwake Tamawashi (3–1)—Mitakeumi wants his sekiwake ranking back. He beat one sekiwake yesterday, today he faces the other. (8:45)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (2–2) vs. M1 Ichinojo (3–1)—Ichinojo has been doing real sumo so far this basho, with his only loss coming against Hakuho. He already earned a kinboshi [gold star prize for a Maegashira rikishi beating a yokozuna] for beating Kisenosato on Day 2, and he has at another against Kakuryu today. For his part, Kakuryu wants to be more like Hakuho than like Kisenosato. (12:15)
M2 Nishikigi (4–0) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (4–0)—This is a first time meeting for these two, which is always interesting. Hakuho has seemed a little shaky over the past couple of day, winning by the seat of his mawashi. Meanwhile, Nishikigi has already beaten Kakuryu and earned a freebie win because of Kisenosato’s retirement. Can he notch “wins” over all three yokozuna in the same tournament? (13:35)

SUMO: Kisenosato Resigns

It’s always big news in sumo when a yokozuna finally decides that it’s time to retire, but today’s news that Kisenosato is withdrawing from the Hatsu Basho and hanging up his mawashi permanently is an extra-big story. If you just started watching sumo in the last two years, you could be forgiven for underestimating Kisenosato, despite his high rank. But the fact is that though he was the most recently promoted of the current yokozuna, and has been sidelined by injury for most 2017 and 2018, Kisenosato was one of the most dominant figures in the sport for the past decade.

More than anyone else, perhaps, Kisenosato suffered for having fought his whole career in the shadow of Hakuho. Although for five years as an ozeki from 2012–2016 he was unable to win a yusho [tournament championship], he was clearly the second best rikishi in the sport, finishing second in eleven of the thirty tournaments during the era. (In that same period, yokozuna Hakuho won fourteen basho and finished second in eight more.) For all that time, Kisenosato also repeatedly finished second in most overall wins per year, outstripping both yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Kakuryu year in and year out.

Hakuho, of course, has been the most dominant force in sumo, but Kisenosato was his main rival. It was his inability to actually win a yusho that kept Kisenosato from being promoted to yokozuna sooner. Usually, an ozeki must win back-to-back tournaments to earn that promotion, but in 2014 Kakuryu was given the nod after a runner-up performance followed by a single yusho. (Such was Hakuho’s dominance at the time that it seemed almost unthinkable that anyone could manage to win two tournaments in a row.) With his solid, reliable performance, the sumo world was sure that if only Kisenosato could lift the Emperor’s Cup once, he too would be promoted. But that goal continued to elude him.

In the end, Kisenosato did get elevated to yokozuna after his first yusho in January of 2017. As it turns out, he also won his first basho as a yokozuna, giving him the traditional two-in-a-row and removing any doubt about his worthiness. However, it was in that second win that the seeds of his downfall were planted. On Day 13 of the 2017 Haru Basho, he suffered a severe shoulder and chest injury while falling from the dohyo (some say he dislocated his shoulder, others that he fractured his clavicle, but details of injuries are rarely made public in sumo). He was still in the running for the yusho, though, and he wanted to prove his fighting spirit, so Kisenosato did not withdraw. Indeed, although clearly in pain and unable to use his left arm, on senshuraku [the final day] he beat ozeki Terunofuji in their regularly scheduled match and again in a playoff to secure the yusho. It really is one of the greatest moments of determination, focus, and champion spirit that I’ve ever seen in ANY sport (comparable to Kerri Strug winning the Olympic gold medal on an injured ankle).

By all rights, Kisenosato should have sat out the next tournament. But sumotori are known for “fighting through the pain,” and he did just that. Unfortunately, sumotori are also known for letting their injuries linger and become chronic, disabling problems, and that’s just what happened to Kisenosato. He had two make-koshi [losing record] tournaments in a row, including the worst ever performance by any yokozuna over a fifteen-day tournament.

Rather than taking the hint, and taking the rest of the year off to recuperate, Kisenosato kept trying to return to the ring as soon as possible and only made things worse. In the eleven tournaments since his second yusho (including the current Hatsu Basho) he sat out four of them completely, withdrew from competition in the middle of six others, and only competed for the full fifteen days once. Given how easily even low-level competition was dominating him this week, it simply and finally became clear to Kisenosato that he no longer was physically capable of performing at yokozuna level.

In a sport known for stoicism, Kisenosato always wore his heart on his sleeve. He teared up when he won his first yusho, and again when he was promoted to yokozuna, and the fans loved him for it. The tears were there again today as he announced his retirement, and it broke all out hearts. Kisenosato loves sumo, not just the competition but the culture and the history. He was clearly proud and honored to be able to be such an important part of this thing he loves, and just as clearly devastated by having to leave it in such an undignified way.

Sports records being kept the way they are, it seems inevitable that Kisenosato will become just a minor blip in the annals of sumo—a yokozuna who only ever won two championships, and lasted only two years at that rank (with a miserable win/loss record). This is unfair and a true shame. His career record was 800-486 (with 97 absences, all of them in his final two years of competition). He was awarded nine sansho [special prizes]—three kanto-sho [fighting spirit], five shukun-sho [outstanding performance], and one gin-sho [technique]—and earned three kinboshi [gold stars for a rank-and-file rikishi beating a yokozuna] (once over Asashoryu and twice against Hakuho).

If record books were fair, they would show that Kisenosato was arguably (and in my opinion definitely was) the second-best rikishi of his era, and the chief rival to the greatest yokozuna of all time.

Upon retiring, Kisenosato has set aside his shikona [fighting name] and taken on the new mantle of Araiso oyakata, so we will still see him at the tournaments and working with the active rikishi. I hope that the Kyokai [Sumo Association] gives him assignments commensurate with the honor he’s brought to the sport and to them over the years.

It’s a sad day to see this great athlete having to bow out in such a diminished capacity. I wish I could thank him personally for all the entertainment and thrills he’s brought me in recent years as I reacquainted myself with the sport of sumo. I’ve had the pleasure of watching during the eras of the great American rikishi of the ’90s and the height of Hakuho’s reign of dominance, and I can unequivocally say that Kisenosato is one of the best rikishi I’ve ever seen. His presence on the dohyo will be sorely missed.

Here’s a short video that collects some of today’s coverage of Kisenosato’s retirement (with English translation).

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 4

Holy cats! What kind of topsy-turvy tournament are seeing?! It’s Day 4 of the Hatsu Basho and the three yokozuna are collectively 4–5 while the three ozeki are 1–8! That’s a combined total of 5–13 for the “champion” class rikishi! What is going on here?!

Of the bunch, ONLY yokozuna Hakuho won on Day 3, and he had an incredibly tough bout with M1 Ichinojo (who had previously beaten ozeki Takayasu and yokozuna Kisenosato). Hakuho showed his prowess by holding off the Mongolian giant and eventually rolling him off the dohyo, but he looked exhausted when it was done.

Meanwhile, yokozuna Kakuryu lost for the second time this basho when facing M2 Nishikigi, who was having his first ever match against a yokozuna. It was a close fight that required a mono-ii [judge’s conference] to resolve, and it COULD have been called a dead-heat and required a do-over. But in the end, the shimpan [judges] decided that Kakuryu was out-maneuvered and deserved to be declared the loser.

Kisenosato is looking absolutely terrible. He suffered his third loss of this basho, and his eighth loss in a row. I’m beginning to more and more think that we are seeing his final days here in Tokyo and that his retirement may well be announced before the Haru Basho begins in March. Right now, the only thing that I think could save him is if he goes kyujo [absent due to injury] immediately and saves himself anymore immediate embarrassment. (As of this writing, he still seems poised to enter competition on Wednesday.) Failing that, he’d better start winning as of Day 4 and not stop until he secures his kachi-koshi [majority of wins].

<<UPDATE: Kisenosato has decided not only to pull out of the tournament, but to announce his retirement from sumo! This is far too big a subject to cover here, so I’ll write a separate post about it later today.>>

I don’t even know what to say about the ozeki. Well, first of all, it’s clear that Tochinoshin is injured—at least that’s a viable excuse. He should go kyujo as soon as possible just to avoid adding to the overall shame of the top rankers. Takayasu, on the other hand, doesn’t look injured, he just looks confused. In fact, he looks like the Takayasu of 2017, who we all thought could make a run at an ozeki promotion if only he got his head together. Now that he IS an ozeki, though, that kind of performance is plain unacceptable. It’s possible that he’ll get his mojo back and finish the tournament with an acceptable record—but at this point, I’m not sure I’d put any money on that happening.

Goeido usually doesn’t go this deep in the tank until the middle weekend. His usual habit is to snap out of it after three or four days, then finish the tournament strong once any chance of vying for the yusho [tournament championship] is gone. To START the tournament with such a lackluster performance is rare for even him.

On the good side of the ledger, sekiwake and reigning champion Takakeisho has picked up where he left off in Kyushu. Yesterday he beat his fellow sekiwake Tamawashi, and did so quite convincingly. If the ozeki and yokozuna don’t snap out of their collective funk, there are only a handful of rikishi who are likely to stand in between Takakeisho and his second (and second straight) yusho. Of course, one of those rikishi is komusubi Mitakeumi, who seems like he’s remembered the type of sumo that got him promoted to sekiwake and allowed him to hold onto that rank for most of 2018. He overpowered Goeido yesterday and looked very much like he’s aiming for his second career yusho and another run at an ozeki promotion.

Because the sumo gods are cruel, Takakeisho and Mitakeumi go head-to-head today, meaning one of them will be knocked one behind in the yusho race before a proper leaderboard has even had a chance to coalesce.

Also looking very strong over the first three days are M5 Aoiyama, M6 Onosho, and M8 Kaisei, all of whom have the skills to compete at the top of the banzuke [ranking sheet] and all of whom are so far undefeated. In particular, I think that Kaisei seems to be in a good groove and will have the easiest schedule of the group due to his low rank. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these rikishi in the hunt for yusho through the middle of Week 2.

Today’s most intriguing matches include:

M14 Yutakayama (2–1) vs. M16 Daiamami (1–2)—A scrappy match between two rikishi near the bottom of the banzuke. Both are keen for kachi-koshi so that they can stay in the Makuuchi division. (1:00)
M7 Ryuden (1–2) vs. M8 Asanoyama (0–3)—Two up-and-coming rikishi in a classic battle on the belt. Lots of grit and determination. (5:05)
M5 Aoiyama (3–0) vs. M6 Onosho (3–0)—Two undefeated rikishi in a fight that . . . well . . . has an ending you don’t often see. (6:45)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (3–0) vs. komusubi Mitakeumi (3–0)—The two top “next generation” rikishi. On paper, the match of the day—certainly the one everyone was waiting for. (9:40)
M1 Ichinojo (2–1) vs. ozeki Goeido (0–3)—Goeido needs to snap out of his funk, but Ichinojo is performing at the top of his game this basho. (11:20)
M2 Hokutofuji (3–0) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (3–0)—Hokutofuji has beaten all three ozeki so far this basho, now he’s coming after the yokozuna. Hakuho is undefeated, but is coming off a very close and exhausting match yesterday against Ichinojo. (15:15)

SUMO: 2019 Hatsu Basho—Day 3

It’s Day 3 of the Hatsu Basho and chaos reigns at the top of the banzuke [ranking sheet]. Two ozeki and one yokozuna remain WINLESS in their first two matches. And only yokozuna Hakuho is undefeated among the top-rankers—and he had quite a scare on Tuesday.

Hakuho may have beaten M1 Tochiozan yesterday, but it was only by the skin of his teeth. Tochiozan had the yokozuna in a near helpless position at the edge of the ring, but he was a little too anxious and didn’t line up his final push correctly. This allowed Hakuho to spin out of the way and watch as Tochiozan marched himself off the dohyo. A win is a win, as the saying goes, and in this tournament a lucky win like that could end up making all the difference in the yusho [tournament championship] race.

Also lucky yesterday was ozeki Takayasu, who got his first win but really ought to have had that result challenged with a mono-ii [judge’s conference]. He and komusubi Myogiryu clearly went out of the ring simultaneously. Indeed, a good case could be made that Takayasu actually lost that match. But again, a win is a win, and Takayasu is the first ozeki to put one on the board this year.

Meanwhile, yokozuna Kakuryu lost his match against komusubi Mitakeumi. For the previous two tournaments, Mitakeumi was on the verge of promotion to ozeki, and the one thing he needed more than anything was to notch some wins against yokozuna opponents, but that goal eluded him. Here in the new year, the now demoted Mitakeumi has managed to beat two yokozuna in the first two days. I think that he is going to make a big breakthrough in 2019 and we’ll see him get his second yusho AND a promotion to ozeki before the year’s end.

Yokozuna Kisenosato, meanwhile, is in real trouble. It’s not so much that he lost to M1 Ichinojo yesterday—he’s always had trouble against the massive Mongolian. But that was Kisenosato’s seventh loss in a row, and as a yokozuna that kind of performance just won’t stand. I was saying yesterday that I think the Kyokai [Sumo Association] might begin to threaten him with forced retirement if he doesn’t do well this basho, but if he doesn’t start notching a few wins (and convincing ones) they might just go directly to ordering him to hang up his mawashi before he embarrasses himself any further.

Ozeki Goeido also is winless so far this tournament. Yesterday it was clearly a mental lapse again, as he had M2 Hokutofuji pushed up against the edge of the ring, only to let him and the match get away in a slipshod way. My knock against Goeido has always been his inability to perform up to his ability when it really mattered, but this basho he’s looked nothing but out of sorts.

Something remarkable happened in ozeki Tochinoshin’s match on Tuesday. Despite getting his favorite power grip, he was unable to hold his ground and got tossed aside by M2 Nishikigi. to me this speaks of his thigh injury being even worse than it seemed on Day 1. If he can’t win when he has both hands on the mawashi—a stance from which he is usually able to physically lift and carry all but the heaviest opponents out of the ring—he may not be able to win at all.

M11 Ikioi fought on Monday, despite the fact that he’d suffered a nasty head wound on Day 1. He somehow managed not to re-open the wound in his Day 2 bout with M10 Abi, but he lost the match AND seemed to injure his left knee pretty badly in the process. I like Ikioi a lot, so I really hope he goes kyujo [absent due to injury] and lets his body heal up. Meanwhile, M12 Kagayaki—the one who headbutted Ikioi on Day 1—was at it again on Day 2. There was another nasty head-bump at the tachi-ai [initial charge] of his match and his opponent, M11 Sadanoumi, ended up with bleeding wound on his forehead by the time the bout was over. Let’s hope this trend ends here.

Today’s most interesting matches include:

M11 Sadanoumi (1–1) vs. M11 Ikioi (1–1)—A head-to-head match (ha!) pitting two rikishi who both suffered deep forehead gashes in the first couple of days (both inflicted by Kagayaki). Can we avoid more blood today? (2:45)
M12 Kagayaki (1–1) vs. M10 Abi (1–1)—And here’s the head-smasher himself. Can Abi avoid being the third victim of Kagayaki’s preternaturally sharp forehead? (3:30)
M8 Kaisei (2–0) vs. M9 Endo (2–0)—Two fan favorite rikishi both ranked further down the banzuke than usual. Should be a good match. (4:35)
Sekiwake Takakeisho (2–0) vs. sekiwake Tamawashi (2–0)—A battle between the two sekiwake, both of whom are so far undefeated. (7:55)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (2–0) vs. ozeki Goeido (0–2)—Mitakeumi has beaten two yokozuna so far, and wants to add an ozeki to his list. Meanwhile, Goeido is still looking for his first win and will have his ozeki pride in full muster. On paper this ought to be the match of the day. (8:55)
M1 Ichinojo (2–0) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (2–0)—On the first two days we’ve seen Ichinojo perform at the very top of his game, which makes him dangerous even to Hakuho. (11:45)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (1–1) vs. M2 Nishikigi (2–0)—Nishikigi has beaten two ozeki so far, and this is his first ever match against a yokozuna. Can he earn his first kin-boshi [gold star award]? (15:00)